Mans Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl - A harrowing tale of one man's experience of surviving a Nazi concentration camp. Whilst it sounds very depressing, it could actually be described as a self help book, giving you ways to combat depression and realise happiness.
This is a very short but profound book - the main first section is less than 100 pages but it is packed full of harrowing facts and information.
Through living through this experience and seeing which individuals survived, and which didn't, he was able to develop a psychology called Logotherapy.
Man's Search For Meaning will stay with you for a long time, but it will also teach you many things that you can put into practice to live a happier life by finding meaning in your every day life.
This book does not really have a story - he is a psychologist after all!
Instead, the book is more a series of facts and information, which is quite different from most of our book club choices.
Given Mans Search for Meaning is quite a short book, it still works.
Frankl tells us his story of being in concentration camps. He went to Auschwitz for processing, was then sent to Kaufering, then to Dachau and then Turkheim. He describes his experiences and in particular the first few days.
He argues that man can get used to anything, even the appalling conditions and treatment in a concentration camp.
He says that the men did not even fear death at first - suicide was contemplated by everyone (even if only momentarily), so death was easier.
After the shock, came the numbness. Prisoners got used to the punishment, the lack of food, the beatings and watching death all around them. They stopped shedding tears or feeling any sort of emotion. Being totally stripped of everything on arrival and becoming merely a number, only added to this feeling.
Why Did Some Survive And Others Didn't?
Most prisoners clung to the past to try to forget the reality of their new existence. But this only lead to them seeing their current life as worthless which usually lead to death and them giving up the will to live.
He sites an example where there were rumours that the the camp was going to be liberated. When the date came and went, so many prisoners lost hope. The result was that the hospital saw many more illnesses and deaths that week. The disappointment was too much for many - they gave up hope and in so doing, disease was able to take hold of their bodies.
Those who had the inner strength to see this as a test and that there was still a future for them out there, had much more chance of survival. Frankl for example manages to stop two men from committing suicide by finding something for them to focus on - a scientist who had not been able to publish his papers before the war; And another man who had a son waiting for him in another country. Both now having something in the future to give them meaning.
Stop Asking What The Meaning Of Life Is
Frankl suggests that we should stop asking what the meaning of life is. Instead we need to find meaning in what we do.
"No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny" - Meaning that there is no one meaning of life - every person has their own unique response to a situation - and they should look upon life as a series of situations rather than one meaning.
For Viktor Frankl, it was his destiny to endure the punishment of Aushwitz and the other concentration camps, to do good and help others in the long run, through his discovery of logotherapy. Not only that, he helped many other prisoners survive, by getting them to find meaning in their suffering e.g. a close relative should be spared a terrible death due to their own suffering.
When the white flag was hoisted at Turkheim, and the prisoners were able to explore the countryside outside of the camp, the prisoners still felt numb.
They did not feel part of this world yet and had forgotten how to feel joy.
It is only when they have eaten and slept that their mind can start to think again.
Frankl talks of the bitterness of returning home, where others say they did not know it was happening and they too have suffered.There is a seemingly lack of disregard for the amount of suffering they have endured.
He also talks of disillusionment - of getting home to realise no-one is there waiting for them.
He talks of others who feel it should be OK to commit wrong, even small wrongs, due to everything that they have suffered.
The second part of Mans Search For Meaning talks about the psychology of Logotherapy. We read this as part of our book club but found it to be a bit too technical and not that interesting in terms of discussion.
Logotherapy is getting patients to focus on the meaning of their lives. It is about helping patience find a meaning to their life.
Given "Mans Search For Meaning" is more a string of facts, it is difficult to call the following "observations", themes:
Frankl suggests there are decent human beings and indecent ones. Whilst he appreciates that it was very hard for any guard to show kindness in the camp, due to the nature of the regime, there were still those that managed it.
It seems amazing that these prisoners could adapt to such terrible circumstances - but they did. Their bodies learned to cope with no food, to deal with pain and to be able to feel no emotion by the amount of death they saw.
Frankl talks about how important love is. Having somebody to love and to think is waiting for you at the end of all the suffering, is an important factor in many prisoner's survival
The Freedom Of Choice
Frankl states that everyone has the freedom of choice, to choose whether to focus on the desperateness of the situation, or to find meaning in the situation, which will enable survival.
Mans Search For Meaning
The book has some harrowing tales. Are there any in particular that will stay with you long after the book?
Do you think you would have been able to survive a concentration camp?
Frankl starts his book with a disclaimer
"This book does not claim to be a book about facts and events but of personal experiences"
Do you think this book is biased given the pain he had to endure? Or has the author managed to achieve a degree of detachment?
Has the book made you think about the meaning of your life? Would you feel comfortable sharing it with the group?
Do you think Frankl's theory of Logotherapy makes sense? Will finding meaning in our life lead to a happier existence?
Or, have successful happy individuals already sub consciously found meaning, and it is only the depressed and unhappy who are yet to discover this truth?
Mans Search For Meaning was a very impactful book indeed and scored 8/10 at our book club.
Everyone took something positive from this book and the discussion was interesting and varied, despite it being such a short novel.
At our Best Books Awards Ceremony, it won several awards including "Best nonfiction" and "Most Memorable"
Well worth a read.
Top of Mans Search For Meaning
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